Small Worlds: Northern Lights

I’m in the middle of revisiting His Dark Materials, which I absolutely adored when I first read it. This time around, having just finished NORTHERN LIGHTS, I continue to be awed by its imaginative grandeur and its daring, as well as its willingness to inject a kind of wildness and philosophy which is striking to find in a series of children’s books.

But it is impossible for me now not to notice how little time Pullman has for women.

For sure, there are key female characters, notably, of course Lyra. And they are compelling, though still half in the clutches of stereotype: it is rather wearying how Mrs Coulter’s villainy, contemptibility and femininity are all represented as pretty much the same thing. Ma Costa is a powerful presence but—as you might guess from her name—her main role is simply to be maternal. Even Serafina Pekkala can’t quite escape lavish attention to her physical beauty and how much witches love men.

My main complaint, though, isn’t about how the women and girls in the book are portrayed, so much as how needlessly all-male settings recur with dismaying regularity. Why does Jordan College have to be so wholly uncritically portrayed as excluding women? Why (except in the sex-segregated Bolvangar) must all of Lyra’s child friends be boys? Why, among the armoured bears, does “bear” mean male bear, with “she-bear” marking the (silent, passive) exception?

This dynamic undermines the portrayal even the important female characters, whose male daemons get approximately a billion times more airtime than any of the female daemons of the male humans. Contrast the enormous attention given to Mrs Coulter’s golden monkey, the vast amount of dialogue and acts of significance given to Serafina Pekkala’s grey goose, compared to the dumb animal presence of Lord Asriel’s snow leopard or Lee Scoresby’s hare.

The most frustrating example of all, for me, is when the gyptians discuss their rescue mission to the North. A woman in the meeting actually raises an objection to the intention to exclude women, and offers suggestions of how women might be useful (even assuming a firmly gendered division of labour). John Faa says he’ll consider it, and in the next chapter we learn merely that he has decided against, with no real justification. One can’t help but think this represents Pullman’s own approach: noticing that his own book was sexist, giving it about two seconds’ thought, and then shrugging and getting on with (male) things. It lends a strange and arbitrary smallness to a work which is otherwise so vast in its ambitions and achievements.

AHIMSA by Supriya Kelkar

Over the course of several weeks, I read AHIMSA by Supriya Kelkar to the kiddo. It follows the adventures of Anjali, a ten-year-old girl in 1940s India. When Anjali’s mother joins Gandhi’s freedom movement, her entire family’s lives are changed.

The plot is enormously satisfying, and roams over complex social territory – not just colonialism, but class and caste injustice, and Hindu-Muslim communal tensions – in a very accessible, organic and humane way, through the ordinary interactions between family members, neighbours, classmates and other members of the community. It is idealistic but not (I think) pat.

The characters are immediate and alive. Even the least sympathetic figures, whom one might be tempted to caricature – the racist British colonial officer, the crotchety and prejudiced old uncle, the Pretty Mean Girl rival – have the opportunity to surprise the reader. I particularly enjoyed Mohan, the Dalit boy who combines hard-bitten cynicism with a sort of impossible romantic streak; who is both (justly) exasperated and yet not unmoved by Anjali’s sometimes-clueless upper-caste idealism.

Kelkar, a screenwriter by background, produces fine dialogue and often has very vivid and lively visual staging for each scene (though this occasionally expresses itself in what feels to me like a slightly workmanlike excess of long gerund phrases).

Would especially recommend for kids, but it’s a pretty good read for adults too.

Reader (colour pencil)

Reader (colour pencil)

I realise the lamp leaves something (…quite a lot) to be desired. But I’m happy with this because: (i) it is one of the most faithfully executed pictures I’ve tried to draw solely from imagination; (ii) I’ve been attempting some variant or another of this scene for a year; and (iii) my initial thinking about geometry and light played out as I intended it to do.

The Underground Railroad / The Hate U Give

I’ve recently finished reading two novels about anti-black racism in the US context: alternate-historical THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead and best-selling YA volume THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas. I’d highly recommend both.

They are very different in tone – where Whitehead is formal or even majestic (though without being fussy), Thomas is all sarcastic first-person teenager, replete with sweary onomatopoeia, Harry Potter references and characters arguing about Tumblr. But they both offer important windows into a still-ongoing history of hellish violence and the extraordinary experiences of people who have been brought down by or else forged on through it. These are worth understanding both for their own sake, and because of what they can tell us about the country that continues to hold the power of violence over all of us on this planet. And they are also just cracking good reads.

Frogs, toads and despots

Some months ago we were gifted a book of FROG AND TOAD stories, pitched as helping emergent readers. I had never encountered this series before. I was very struck by how the author, Arnold Lobel, working within the constraints of very simple vocabulary, short sentences and sentence repetition, and using simple but evocative illustrations, created a surprising depth of characterisation and feeling. His stories are brief but highly memorable portraits of two distinctive individuals with differing outlooks but a deeply complementary friendship. (I am, for the record, Toad.)

Recently I looked Lobel up and discovered that he was a gay USAmerican man who had lived most of his life in the closet, coming out to his wife and children after a long time, eventually dying of AIDS. The beautiful snapshots of connection found in his fiction were, it’s been speculated, testimonials to his experiences of homosexual tenderness. His feelings were denied ordinary expression and sublimated into extraordinary work.

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Lately I’ve been absorbed in Peter Pomerantsev’s NOTHING IS TRUE AND EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE, an account of the contortions and confusions of media and political thought under Putin. It is both horribly, fascinatingly weird and also (for Singapore’s liberals and democrats) a little familiar.

It feels good to be reading again. I’ve done exceptionally poorly on the books front this year so far, largely because I find it hard to have more than one book going at a time, and for ages I’d been stuck on Marlon James’ A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS. I finally gave up somewhere around 150 pages in. I can sort of see why it’s reckoned good, but I just didn’t want to deal any longer with the reptition, the lack of forward momentum and the numbing brutality – which kept putting me in mind, perhaps unfairly, of the ‘wot u starin at’ send-up Edward St Aubyn created in LOST FOR WORDS. I’m sure some unflattering inferences can be drawn from the fact that I went from struggling with James’ mode of violence to finding delicious relief in revisiting the sterile bitchiness of the world of Patrick Melrose, but it is what it is.

The Gene: An Intimate History

I am greatly enjoying Siddhartha Mukherjee’s THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY, a fat, satisfying, humane tour of scientific history, ranging (so far, in the first 90 pages or so) through territories as widely flung as Mendel’s pea gardens and the constitutional rulings of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr; hitting notes as far apart as corny references to ‘Hotel California’ and elegant musings on hereditary illnesses within the author’s own family. Gorgeous and world-expanding.

Sorcerers and physics

I’ve been on a bit of a genre binge lately: there was the Walton, and then Zen Cho’s SORCERER TO THE CROWN, which I ultimately found both absorbing and unsatisfying, for many of the reasons laid out in this excellent blog post and comments thread. The beginning was rather too mannered for my tastes: the mysteries were set up in a way that seemed to show too transparently the strings behind the puppetry, and the whole atmosphere lent itself too much to glib comparisons to JONATHAN STRANGE (at points feeling almost like fanfiction). But once Mak Genggang and Prunella Gentleman came onto the scene it all came much more alive – though I never did find the magic as convincing as the social satire.

I’m now inching through Ken Liu’s English translation of THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, which also has at times a strange clash of tones and registers. There’s the subject matter of Cold War US pulp SF (which was, I’ll have you know, basically the highlight of my preteen life) and sometimes even the strange abrupt characterisations of that genre; blended with the depth and interest that always (for me) accompanies the depiction of real totalitarianism; and then the fantastical-historical computer game exploration of hard physics problems that I can only, due to the limited horizons of my reading, associate strongly with Greg Egan. The last is so weirdly compelling that today, at a work meeting, I found myself suggesting that we might dehydrate a project and then reanimate it with water under more hospitable conditions. These creeping metaphors.